On the Waterfront
‘The ending of On the Waterfront is highly ambiguous, but ultimately the film offers little hope for the future of this community. ’ Do you agree? Although critics universally regarded “On the Waterfront” directed by Elia Kazan as a masterpiece reflecting issues central to the 1950s, when the film came out, a few critics were less sure about it. The film ends with a final confrontation between its main characters, its usual waterfront fights and a broken body but this ending is extremely vague, unclear and indistinctive. As a result, the film fails to solve the issue that this type of struggling workers – the Dockers who lead a tough life.
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This group of people live mostly without much hope for the future because their working condition are poor and low and are exploited by their master/mob who are they superiors. These men get the best benefits through bribery and corruption and these benefits are not passed on to the lower workers, thereby giving these men no hope for the future. The extremely uncertain view of the film ending discredits the issues the film portrays – corruption on the docks with the themes of individual conscious, group loyalty and personal honour. The uncertain world on the waterfront remains uncertain even at the end.
Terry Malloy’s blurred vision, as the camera changes from third person to first, is a reminder that the way forward to the workers is far from clear. Frustrated by other men growing rich and fat through hard work of simple Dockers, Terry agrees to testify to the Waterfront Crime Commission about power and corruption and the restrictive and illegal practises taking place on the wharves. Terry’s choice whether to testify or stick to his claim that “I don’t know nothing” is a representation of the film’s larger concern. This shows the very thing and highly ambiguous line between personal and collective responsibility.
Terry’s ultimate choice makes greater good for his community so that no more men will find themselves victims of Johnny Friendly’s gang. Terry is considered as an out-law hero because initially he was reluctant to become involved in stopping the growing violence and corruption that surrounded him. This uncertainty is carried to the end of the film; the possibility of individuals rising above the dangerous and bleak waterfront world is cast into doubt by the mist and smoke that dominates the daytime scenes and film noir style of lighting used to create the claustrophobic nigh time world.
For example, even the bar scene at night are not brightly lit but dim and dark with stains of blood from terry’s jacket. Jocko ask “what’s wrong with your shoulder? ” to which Terry replies “hit me again. ” This noir presentation of dark events adds to the ambiguity at the end. This waterfront community does not demonstrate a hopeful outlook. Johnny Friendly who has made the waterfront his own empire bargain with the workers who depend on him for the opportunity to work as said by a Docker, “if we don’t borrow we don’t work. Although Johnny starts with a “soft touch,” he does not let the Dockers achieve the American Dream of hard work and good pay. Not an agreeable man, Johnny has “sweated and bled” to control one of the “fattest harbours in the world,” the port town of Hoboken in New Jersey. Through the character of Johnny Friendly, the film explorers the illusion of success and power. Terry says “you take them heaters away from and you are nothing you know that? ” this shows the uncertainty of success. Johnny is a broken man at the end, humiliated by the longshoreman’s lack of obedience as turned to follow Terry like a flock following a shepherd.
While many ignore Jonny and walk towards their work, Johnny roars at them “I’ll be back! ” This uncertain element is later reflected in the series of Terminator series. The audience is made to think whether this would really happen, little to indicate that he will find his way to a position of power once again. Sometimes it may be that he could comeback. The waterfront community is left in doubt. Corruption in port existed in the 1950s and still exists. Bribe setting behaviour, shipping decision, bribe payments at each port and corrupt authorities are seen in today’s waterfront too.
If the film reached a conclusion decision to protect Dockers, it would have been reflected even today. Although Terry heroically goes up against his corrupt leaders to expose the union’s criminal practises, such practises still exists and there is room for another corrupt leader to emerge. As long as there are secondary characters such as Mr Upstairs, there is bound to be indecisions. They can come back and cause confusion on the waterfront scene. Mr Upstairs represents a greater power than everyone else and is a true source of malevolence.
He is the typical bureaucrat who sets bribes, earn illegal money to increase his income, to improve his welfare but not help the mass workers. Such characters set high prices on shipping goods and betray the system. Sometimes even the Crime Commission are themselves corrupt. In the film, both union mob and the Waterfront Crime Commission represent the face of authority. They cause moral confusion – for example Terry is forced to take a moral choice which authority he will listen to. This is usually emphasised by the dim lighting.
Terry feels uncomfortable to play this unknowing role. He also has to maintain friendship with Johnny Friendly knowing repercussion of testifying against Johnny. He knows that is he fails to obey the code of silence “D’n’D,” the punishment is often deadly. As an anti-hero, Terry is forced to question himself about these uncertainties. As Father Barry says to Terry “what’s ratting to them is telling the truth for you,” Terry knows the importance of loyalty, although Father Barry wants him to make a “right” choice, “testifying for what is right against what is wrong. Father Barry equates silence with singing and evil and says “knock them out for good. ” Terry acknowledges that he should “care about everybody else” by wearing Joey Doyle’s jacket. The key moments in the film make the viewer question whether or not corruption on the waterfront has indeed been eliminated, or whether this power will simply come in a different form through Mr Upstairs, a faceless symbol of a wealthy businessman involves in corruption that impacts on the working class. These circumstances show that there is little hope offered to the waterfront community.